View Full Version : Plenty of time By Muhammad Hamid Zaman - 19th May 2015

19th May 2015, 10:38 AM
Not too long ago, many of us, myself included, lamented the fact that there is little in the way of academic discourse in the country. We argued that not enough conferences are organised to discuss scientific findings, celebrate literature or highlight culture. Fortunately, that has started to change. Not only are the literature festivals organised routinely, they have gone beyond the traditional strongholds of Lahore and Karachi. There are also more scientific conferences in the country on wide-ranging topics. Even better, these meetings not only get support from the traditional governmental sources, but also from stakeholders in the private sector and various non-governmental foundations.

This, while a cause for optimism, is just the beginning of a long road. As we celebrate these small, but important new endeavours, we also need to recognise that there is still some way to go. There are still major gaps in these conferences and meetings that dent even our most honest and sincere efforts. Perhaps, the most important self-inflicted wound that is sucking professionalism out of our conferences is the lack of punctuality. Our national attitude towards time continues to be shockingly unprofessional. From our obnoxious habit of being ‘fashionably’ late to dinners and shaadis, to being casual about starting the conference sessions on time, the attitude is not only highly unprofessional, it is also insulting to those who do show up on time. We continue to punish those who do make an effort to respect time, despite the traffic, the road conditions and all the other excuses.

At a recent conference that I attended, not only was the session chair late, even those who were supposed to be in the attendance were least bothered about the schedule. A keynote session that was supposed to start at 9am had exactly three people in the hall at 9am. The three people included myself, an A-V technician and another idiot like me who showed up on time. Most people were late by at least half an hour, many more were late by over an hour. The optimist in me told me that at least we do not have a split personality — it is not that we have a social persona and a professional persona: we are late for our social engagements, and we are late in our professional meetings! The glass, which arrived late in my imagination, was certainly half full.

As equal opportunity offenders, the misbehaviour isn’t just meted out by those in the audience. It is equally troubling that those who speak are also unable to keep a track of time. While many of us — myself included — love to hear the sound of our own voices, a lecture of 30 minutes, going over by another 30 minutes should never be acceptable. The speakers, even those lucky ones who do start on time, are often equally guilty of taking what is not theirs.

As I shared my frustration with a few friends recently, I was bombarded with two arguments. The first one was that I was being too uptight. I am happy to be called that if that is the definition of being fair these days. To me, the argument is only about fairness and nothing else. The second one is the typical ‘analogy’ argument. It rests on the premise that there are plenty of conferences in other parts of the world that run late — or where speakers go over the allocated time. This is hardly an argument since bad behaviour anywhere in the world is wrong at a fundamental level. And analogies can never defend unprofessionalism.

Perhaps, the real problem is not in the action, but in the attitude. For us as a society, it is no longer a goal to be punctual, and most certainly there is nothing inappropriate in our minds about having no respect for time, ours or that of anyone else. Maybe the problem is with me; maybe I am the one who fails to acknowledge that while resources are scarce in the country, and we do not have any oil to burn, we are entitled to spend and abuse the one resource we all seem to have in abundance: time.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2015.